Let’s be honest. Many of us spend a lot time exercising the ab, but there are other muscles in the body that need just as much attention for a stronger core. Here are 5 non-ab muscles that affect your belly, and find out how to get them to work as ab tighteners.
Have you ever noticed your chin pointing toward the floor when you hold a plank? Or that your head seems to lead when you bang out crunches? “That means your neck muscles – specifically the sternocleidomastoid and scalene-are trying to power your abs,” says movement specialist Perry Nickelston, D.D., the author of the upcoming Stop Chasing Pain. To put the work back on your abs, pull your head in line with your shoulders and tuck your chin. And since the back of your neck is often and tight, release tension there before you do any ab work: Lie faceup on the floor for a minute or two with two tennis balls placed at the base of your skull on both sides of your spine.
If you typically don’t fill your belly with air every breath – and most of us don’t – you’re shortchanging your ab workout. “Breathing shallowly from your chest means you’ll never get optimal strength or power during moves like squats, dead lifts, and plyometrics,” Nickelston says. The diaphragm muscle sits below your lungs and is usually on autopilot (meaning it works without you telling it to, but if you train it to work better, it will). It increases intra-abdominal pressure and adds to your core stability especially when you’re moving. A wimpy diaphragm makes it tough for your body to stabilise your spine, which puts you at risk for pain, injury, and poor performance during exercise, sapping abs-sculpting opportunities. “Think of your abs and back as a cylinder and expand both of them as you breathe to more fully engage the diaphragm,” Nickelston says. “It’s the most important and effective things you can do to improve your stability.” First, perfect the technique when you’re at rest: Lie face up and press the back of your rib cage into the floor with each breath. Now maintain that sensation during core moves to elicit more ab activation and power but also to engage your abs during any exercise you’re doing.
These finger-like muscles along the sides of your ribs stabilise your shoulder blades, Stanforth says. A sign that they’re not firing is your shoulder blades stick out of “wing” when you’re in a plank. Strengthening them will make holding planks and powering through push-ups much easier-and the muscle fibers themselves can make your midsection look super sculpted. To activate your serratus, pull in your front ribs. To toughen them up, hold a plank and press your palms firmly into the floor as you pull your shoulder blades apart. Squeeze them back together; repeat. Do two sets of 12 reps three days a week.
This hip-flexor muscle runs from both sides of your lower spine around to your pelvis and is tight (and weak) in most people. And a tight psoas can turn off other muscles, including your abs and butt-meaning you’re not getting the most out of your workouts. It may also tilt the pelvis forward, making your abs protrude and giving the appearance that you have a belly, Nickelston says. Stretch and strengthen your psoas with this move: Kneel on the floor on your right knee with left foot flat in front of your right hip. Hold for 30 seconds, then drive your right knee into the floor as if you’re trying to bring it forward (it won’t move). Hold for 10 seconds; release. Repeat twice. Switch legs: repeat. To stop your psoas from taking over during floor ab moves, don’t anchor your feet, says Stanforth. “Instead, place the soles of your feet together and let you knees open wide to release the psoas and let your abs do the work.”
The adductor muscles are your inner thigh muscles. When they work together with your abs (especially the obliques) as they’re meant to, they form a powerhouse center that generates force from the middle of your body. “Usually the adductors are overused because the abs are weak and under worked,” Nickelston says. To teach the adductors and abs to work together, try the Pallof press: Anchor the center of a resistance band around a pole at chest height. Grab ends with each hand; step away until the band is taut. Stand perpendicular to the band with left side facing the pole and legs staggered, left foot in front of right, to start. Hold hands together next to chest for four counts; slowly extend arms forward at chest height for four counts and hold for four. (Resist being pulled to the left.) Return to start. That’s one rep. Do five reps. Switch sides: repeat.